Urban Elites and Family Strategies


As a result of its important role in shaping both the political and economic spheres in late
medieval cities, the urban patriciate has received significant scholarly attention in both
historical sociology and economic history. Case studies on various de facto-independent
late medieval city states e.g. in Italy and widely autonomous cities in Germany (such as
Freie Städte, Reichsstädte) have identified specific and general patterns in family and
kinship structures and the commercial orientation and political strategies of patrician
family clans, which are crucial for our understanding of path-dependency in economic
development and political history. Primary challenges of cross-European comparative
approaches to urban patrician elites result from the vast amount of possible variables
(e.g. geographical conditions, religion, political systems, territorial size) that impact upon
family structure. Thus, comparative histories of urban patriciates are typically designed
as comprehensive studies covering political and economic incentives as well as cultural
dispositions and collective social mentalities.


In this session, we look at elite constitution and behaviour in urban medieval England
and France (covered by R.H. Hilton’s comparative study), across the Italian peninsula
(described in D. Kent’s book chapter) and in Late-Tang China (subject of Tackett’s
article). Specifically, we enquire about
1. the relationship between urban elites and the surrounding feudal nobility: rivalry,
interdependence, or emulation?
2. social hierarchies within the urban patriciate: to what extent was the urban
patriciate a homogenous social class and how concrete was the correlation
between economic potency and political influence? Was there social mobility
towards the patriciate? What was the role of patronage in consolidating political
3. the significance of kinship structures in determining economic co-operation and
political dependencies: what was the role of intra-family oligarchies?
4. the interdependences between social elites and institutions of political and
economic pertinence (such as religious institutions, guilds, state bureaucracy):
dominance of the family?
5. the roles of ritual and representation

More generally, we are interested in the social composition of medieval cities, the
relationship between the nobility, other political and social elites, and the populace, and
the extent to which the overall social structure determined the means and intensities of
communication within and between societal spheres. Participants are invited to think of
relevant examples from their own research and to contribute these towards the

Core reading:

Hilton, R. H.: English and French towns in feudal society: a comparative study,
Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 1992, chapter 3: Urban social structures
(pp. 53-86); chapter 4: Urban rulers (pp. 87-104).

Kent, Dale: "The power of the elites: family, patronage, and the state", in: Najemy, John
M. (Hg.), Italy in the Age of the Renaissance 1300-1550, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Tackett, Nicolas: "Great Clansmen, Bureaucrats, and Local Magnates: The Structure and
Circulation of the Elite in Late-Tang China", in: Asia Major 21 (2008), No. 1, pp. 101–152.

Recommended further reading:

Chojnacki, Stanley: "In Search of the Venetian Patriciate: Families and Factions in the
Fourteenth Century", in: Hale, John Rigby (ed.), Renaissance Venice, Totowa, N. J.:
Rowman and Littlefield, 1973, pp. 47-90.

Chojnacki, Stanley: "Marriage Legislation and Patrician Society in Fifteenth-Century
Venice", in: Bachrach, Bernard S., Nicholas, David (eds.), Law, Custom and the Social
Fabric in Medieval Europe - Essays in Honor of Bryce Lyon, Kalamazoo (MI): Medieval
Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1990, pp. 163-184.

Clark, Peter (ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, forthcoming 2013. Particularly chapters
 1: Introduction (Peter Clark)
 12: Medieval Europe (Marc Boone)
 15: The Ottoman City (Ebru Boyar)
 16: China 600-1300 (Hilde De Weerdt)
 21: Economy (Bas van Bavel, Eltjo Buringh, Maarten Bosker, Jan Luiten van
 22: Population and Migration – European and Chinese experiences compared
(Anne Winter)
 23: Power (Wim Blockmans, Marjolein 't Hart)
 24: Culture: Representations (Peter Burke)

Crabb, Ann: The Strozzi of Florence - Widowhood & Family Solidarity in the Renaissance,
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Greif, Avner: "The Study of Organizations and Evolving Organizational Forms Through
History: Reflections from the Late Medieval Family Firm", in: Industrial and Corporate
Change 5 (1996), No. 2, pp. 473-502.

Habermas, Jürgen: The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a
category of bourgeois society, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press 1989 (esp. chapters I.2,

Heers, Jacques: Le clan familial au moyen âge étude dur les structures politiques et
sociales des milieux urbains, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1974.

Herlihy, David: "Family solidarity in medieval Italian history", in: Explorations in
Economic History 7 (Autumn-Winter 1969), No. 1-2, pp. 173-184.

Hibbert, A. B.: "The Origins of the Medieval Town Patriciate", in: Past & Present 3 (Feb.,
1953), pp. 15-27.

Hughes, Daine Owen: "Urban Growth and Family Structure in Medieval Genoa", in: Past
& Present 66 (Feb., 1975), pp. 3-28.

Kamenaga-Anzai, Yoko: "The Family Consciousness in Medieval Genoa: The Case of the
Lomellini", in: The Mediterranean World XIX (June 2008).

Padgett, John F.: "Open Elite? Social Mobility, Marriage and Family in Florence, 1282-
1494", in: Political Networks Paper Archive Working Papers, 2009.

Rigby, Stephen H.: "Approaches to Pre-industrial Social Structure", in: Denton, Jeffrey
Howard (ed.), Orders and Hierarchies in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Rigby, Stephen H.: English society in the later Middle Ages: class, status, and gender,
London: Macmillan, 1995.

Queller, Donald E.: The Venetian Patriciate: Reality versus Myth, Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Wickham, Chris: Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-
800, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006 (esp. chapter 10).

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